Notes on Diversity:
This is a book written by a woman of color about a man of color trying to survive in a foreign land. His culture and his worldview are centered and normalized in the book.
The book also has much to say on topics of mental health and disability; a substantial section midway through takes place in what is essentially a mental health facility. This section is remarkably kind and tender, unlike many representations of mental health care often seen in fiction.
WHY DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK. Not in terms of time, but, I mean, why didn’t I find and read this book sooner? Why didn’t I hear about this book three years ago, when it first came out, and devour it then? Why did I only stumble across it now?
A Stranger In Olondria is the story of Jevick, a pepper merchant’s son on the island of Tyom who is destined to sell his goods to the countrymen of Olondria. His father sends for an Olondrian tutor to teach him how to read and write, to learn the language, to trade with the strangers in that far away country with a fluency he himself never had. Jevick waits for his chance to go to Olondria, this place he only knows from his tutor’s memories and from the descriptions of the books his tutor brought to Tyom. Once there, things are different. Some things are better than he imagined. Some things are worse.
And then the tale takes a turn: Jevick’s fate becomes tied to the fate of a dead girl from a different island. She reaches out to him, keeps him from sleeps, brings him to the brink of madness, and forces him to stay in Olondria even while his companions return to Tyom. The narrative twists and twists again as Jevick has to negotiate with his ghost.
Oh, there is so much to love in this book. Jevick’s love of the written word itself–even as literacy serves to divide a population alone classed lines–so reminded me of Hild. He, like Hild, sees magic in words, in their permanence, in their literal power to cross time and space. Over and over, Jevick returns to books when he needs solace. As a child, they are his refuge from his unpredictable and mysterious father. As a man, they are the way he first understands Olondria. And later, when things go sideways, he uses the written word to cling to his disordered life, to keep himself together, even as Jissavet’s ghost hounds him. Finally, it is the act of writing stories down that serves as liberation–for someone else, and for them, for him. But the politics of literacy, who has it and who does, is not lost here.
A Stranger In Olondria is a ghost story, but it’s not a book about death. Not really. It’s a book about living. I think it would be easy to say it’s a book about love, and that’s partly true, but even then, it’s really about living. Or, more blatantly put, I think it’s a book about learning how to actually live, actually sink your hands into the bloody mess of your life and get into it instead of primly edging around its corners. It’s about seizing every second of life you can, and not in a violent way, or a vicious way, but with joy and with bittersweetness, and with the knowledge that time is limited and all the knowledge you have gathered may do nothing to prepare you for what is coming the next moment. It’s one of those wonderful small/epic big/quiet books. One of those books that zooms in on one person, one not-all-that-important person and allows you to really feel that person’s trials and tribulations. And because that person is not-all-that-important, the sweeping epic of their small scope of life is relatable, and their joys and victories are even more keenly felt.
Sofia Samatar’s prose is truly beautiful. Phenomenally, fantastically beautifully. Check this shit out:
In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire.
Time unrolled in the Houses, monotonous as a skein of wool.
Samatar is just a wizard with words. Her prose is precise, and fluid, and cutting. And honest. The style here is definitely reflective of Jevick–patient, a smidge of purple, a young man who is enamoured of books, who pauses, who waits until he can’t wait anymore. I’ve read enough of Samatar’s short fiction to know that she can write in other styles (also beautifully). But the imagery she conjures up again and again her just floored me.
There was a sentiment, introduced near the end of the book, that really got me: that we should value “not what will make us happy, but what is precious.” I’ve been rolling that over and over in my mind. Sometimes, in the best cases, those are the same thing. But they are so often not. To see Jevick’s choices in the novel in light of this piece of wisdom, from beginning to end, is striking. To see my own life organize along these lines–when have I chosen happiness over what is precious? When have I chosen what is precious over happiness? When were they the same?–is more striking still. A Stranger In Olondria is in me now, riding in my marrow. It will be a book, like The Left Hand of Darkness, that I’ll end up re-reading every few years. I can feel it coming.
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